Stephen of Muret: A Medieval Christian Hermit's Thoughts
The fate of St. Stephen of Muret (1045-1124), the last hermit-reformer of eleventh-century Western Christianity, is representative of that tumultuous era of monastic and eremitic movements. Stephen is identified by history as the founder of the Grandmont religious order of hermits (which was suppressed in the eighteenth century), though as leading Muret scholar Carole Hutchison puts it, he "never intended founding a religious order and never set eyes on Grandmont."
Instead, Stephen intended a modest eremitic life in the remote Limousin district of south-central France, eventually sharing his wisdom with aspiring hermits and inspired visitors. His Maxims, or Thoughts, were compiled into a book years after his death, though Stephen wrote nothing. So under-appreciated throughout history has he been that Hutchison dubs him the "patron saint of the unrecognized." But Stephen's thoughts still speak clearly to us across the centuries.
The biographies of the period are no more accurate about Stephen's life than hagiography: the analogies with John the Baptist, the study and tutelage in Rome with an eminent cardinal, the visit to his forest hut in later life by two eminent churchmen who would become popes and would approve the Grandmont order and Stephen's beatification. But Stephen's purported visit to Greco-Calabrian hermits, who were to greatly inspire his decision at thirty to become a hermit, does ring true.
The obscurity of Stephen's life only highlights what we do know: that the Thoughts were compiled at the behest of the fourth prior of Grandmont fifteen years after Stephen's death. Compilation of the Thoughts coincided with development of a Rule drawn up for the order, approved in 1156 by Pope Adrian IV.
The most credible information about Stephen describes his simple wattle dwelling situated on a rocky terrace in a valley of trees in densely forested hills. His clothes were the same in winter and summer: an undergarment and woolen tunic, with chain mail in lieu of a hair shirt. Stephen's diet consisted of forest nuts and berries, and he slept on rough boards. He passed his days in meditation and the recitation of the traditional monastic hours. Stephen lived alone for several years in this fashion until the arrival of disciples and visitors. It should be noted that he was not a priest nor even a formal monk.
From the Prologue of the Thoughts, we see the evangelical origins of Stephen's spirituality, wherein he states boldly: "There is no rule other than the Gospel of Christ."
All Christians who come together to live as one can be called "monks," even if the name is more particularly given to those who, like the apostles, kept a greater distance from the business of the world, giving their minds to the thought of God alone.
And this rule of Christ supercedes monastic rules because it comes from the words of Jesus himself: "Blessed are the poor in spirit." Against the rules of Basil or Benedict, Stephen places the rule of Jesus that permits married or unmarried to be equally sanctified by none else than the "Rule of God." For all can follow the invitation of Jesus: "Let whoever wants to come after me take up their Cross and follow me."
The "rule" of God enjoins those who follow Stephen's eremitical example to, as Stephen puts it, "give up your own wishes regarding eating, fasting, sleeping, keeping vigil." The hermit must "become a peasant, fetching wood and carting manure, a servant of all your brethren." Here is the first note of ambiguity, however. On the one hand, the desert hermits were at the charitable disposal of their fellows, but an order -- even a "hermit" order or an organized coenobitic existence -- requires more deliberate rules and responsibilities of its participants. Mutual aid among forest hermits, however, seems to have been Stephen's modest goal, in keeping with the spirit of the desert fathers.
Stephen intended no more than, perhaps, the "order" of the apostles and Jesus. He tells those who follow his example that:
You can move on to any monastery you wish, where you will find impressive buildings, delicate foods served according to their seasons. There, too, you will meet with great expanses of land covered with flocks. Here you will find only poverty and the Cross.
Again, he says, echoing John the Baptist:
I desire to come here in order to endure all things, not so that I may increase but rather decrease.
"Poverty was coupled with solitude," notes Hutchison. "The fundamental notion expressed in his Thoughts and later made explicit in the Rule was that the hermits were to embrace poverty in solitude." Many of the heart-felt passages of the Thoughts suggest the hermit speaking to a handful of aspirants to the eremitical life, for the method of these sayings is suggestive of gentle counsel and their content is pure and without reservation full of love for the way of life Stephen sees as the core of the Gospel. Here are some examples from the earliest sections:
- There is no other Rule than the divine precepts. Anyone who keeps these is a religious; whoever strays from them lives outside the bounds of all orders and Rules.
- If God's Son would have known a better way than poverty for a person to gain Heaven, he would surely have chosen it as his path. Love poverty, then, for Jesus Christ chose it as the better part. But do not take what I have said here as an accolade for me or yourself. God alone knows how we really stand with him. Yet even if our way of life is not guaranteed to be holy, at least it is not ambiguous.
- Ignore any voice -- from within or without -- counseling more involvement with the world.
- [From the compiler]: He [i.e., Stephen] demanded that we really give up the worldly affairs we have renounced and that we live in our solitudes as though dead to the world, forever on its margins.
While the Thoughts attributed to Stephen reveal the depth of his spiritual insight, they are not sufficient to account for his outstanding spiritual attraction for others, although they provide evidence of the paternal care which he afforded his spiritual progeny.
We can imagine Stephen's hut as the center of a function frequently seen among the desert hermits: young aspiring hermits making the rounds to the elders in order to confer with and to listen to them. In time the brothers were called bon hommes, even in Stephen's time.
Stephen himself may have allocated the huts around what was probably a primitive chapel or oratory, but early practices of the order of Grandmont show that even financial decisions were delegated to lay brothers, with both the practical and the contemplative brothers having equal status. This sharing of responsibilities extended to sharing goods and labor with the neighboring poor.
Perhaps even within Stephen's lifetime, growth led to that bee-like phenomenon of "swarming," like the lavrae of the eastern monks and hermits (learned, perhaps, from the Greco-Calabrians?), where new cells were created a short distance away from others in order to accommodate the optimal size communities.
But for all that, activity was probably at a slow pace and spontaneous during Stephen's lifetime, reflecting his simpler values. As a personality,
Stephen appears decidedly non-descript. One of his most appealing qualities, and the one which is strongly apparent in his Thoughts is the intensive humility which prevented him from ever indulging in any overt criticism [of churchmen or orders].
Unlike the clever and acerbic Bernard of Clairvaux who attacked Cluny and Rome with equal vigor, notes Hutchison, Stephen
instead of overturning the tables of the moneylenders ... quietly followed his Christ into the desert. Once there, he proceeded to demonstrate that reformation can be achieved more effectively by good example and gentleness than by thundering abuse.
Such is the hermit way, not ignorant or tolerant of abuse but looking to the universal for a source of inner change, inner reform, that would then radiate a small but steady light to an immediate environ. Concludes Hutchison:
His achievement, the full uncompromising appreciation of the plain Gospel of Jesus to a regular life of shared solitude, has never received the acclamation it warrants. Stephen of Muret, patron saint of the unrecognized, has thus remained throughout the centuries one of the unsung heroes of the Christian Church.
Addenda: More Thoughts of Stephen
Here are some favorite sayings from Stephen of Muret's Thoughts:
- If you submit with calm and good grace to lacking the bare necessities, you do well, though this is not yet perfect self-control. A perfect self-control has the object of the body's desire before it but still leaves the thing untouched. When even your taste for worldly pleasures dulls, then you have attained consummate self-control.
- If you are unwilling to imitate [the saints in their hard labor], then their pains will only serve to terrify you.
- Think of the lesser beasts, deprived of reason, who can do none other but be busy doing the Lord's will. This should awaken great shame and fear in your heart, that though privileged to have the use of reason, you shrink back from your part in God's plan. But act like this and you will end up being afraid of any and every thing.
- Often people bewail situations they are never likely to be in, or fear giving what God is not asking for anyway, while leaving undone that which their situation demands.
- It is more perfect to find something for which to blame yourself in a good deed than in a bad one. For anyone can feel guilty committing evil, but it takes wisdom to recognize how much ill still lies beneath a good action.
- We are not able to understand or relate all that goes on within ourselves. How can we say anything of value about the depth of God? ... So you are wise if you simply stand in wonder before what the power of God can do.
- Stephen of Muret, Maxims. Translated by Deborah van Doel, edited by Maureen M. O'Brien. Introduction by Carole Hutchison. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2002.
- Hutchison, Carole, The Hermit Monks of Grandmont. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989.